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Standing Up for Workers: Promoting Labor Rights through Trade


Protecting workers’ rights is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and the Department of Labor (DOL) are leading the Administration’s efforts to improve labor laws and working conditions with trading partners in virtually every region of the globe. These efforts are made in close coordination with other U.S. agencies and in collaboration with Congressional and other stakeholders, as well as international partners such as the International Labour Organization (ILO).
From bringing the first-ever labor dispute under a free trade agreement (FTA), to working with Burma on a new labor rights initiative, to developing roadmaps to address serious workers’ rights concerns in Bangladesh and Swaziland, to seeking the highest-ever labor commitments with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) countries, which collectively represent nearly two-thirds of the global economy, the Obama Administration is taking unprecedented actions to promote and protect fundamental labor rights and ensure acceptable conditions of work.
The stakes are high and the challenges are great. Overcoming these challenges will require sustained progress across many initiatives and the joining of efforts not only across the U.S. Government but also with other like-minded countries and stakeholders, including the international labor community. With both American values and interests at stake, the Administration is committed to maintaining the effort to ensure that the benefits of trade are broadly shared and to supporting a growing and vibrant middle class around the world.
The trade policy tools that are available to this end have evolved over time. Twenty years ago, when the United States entered into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, labor provisions were not included in the core of the agreement. Rather, they were in a side agreement, virtually all of the provisions of which were not subject to any enforcement mechanism. Today, the Obama Administration is negotiating provisions that are fundamentally different from NAFTA. The Administration is seeking in TPP provisions that require parties to provide workers their fundamental rights, as stated in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The Administration is also seeking first-ever protections relating to importing goods made with forced labor, adopting laws on acceptable conditions of work and upholding labor standards in export processing zones. The Obama Administration has insisted that labor provisions be at the core of the agreement, subject to full dispute settlement and the full range of trade sanctions. Stronger tools make a difference and the new tools being negotiated by the Obama Administration in TPP will empower this Administration—and future administrations—to undertake broader and more effective action than ever before.
This report discusses the Obama Administration’s efforts in a number of key countries—Guatemala, Colombia, Jordan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Swaziland, Haiti and Burma—in which USTR and DOL have had intensive engagement on labor issues in recent years. Presenting unique opportunities and challenges, each country has required a tailored approach—from the invocation of formal dispute settlement procedures, to action under U.S. preference programs, to negotiation of specific commitments for change, to consultations and collaborative efforts to develop a path forward. Our objective, however, has been the same in each case—to make trade work better for workers.
In Guatemala, we are engaged in a formal dispute settlement process under the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), having exhausted consultative efforts aimed at ensuring that workers are afforded the protections they are due under Guatemalan labor law. As the first Administration to make use of such a mechanism, the Obama Administration has made clear that the objective is not punitive, but rather to ensure that Guatemala upholds the commitments it has made under the CAFTA-DR with respect to workers’ rights.
In Bahrain, we have pursued formal consultations under the United States-Bahrain trade agreement to address concerns regarding targeting of union leaders in the events surrounding the 2011 Arab Spring civil unrest. The Government of Bahrain has made important progress—such as reinstating the vast majority of workers who had been dismissed in that process—but significant challenges remain and USTR and DOL are continuing to engage to try to resolve them.
In Colombia, a long and constructive engagement with the Government led to the negotiation of the extensive Colombian Action Plan Related to Labor Rights (Action Plan). This plan was designed to address longstanding concerns relating to violence against labor leaders, impunity for such acts and protection of labor rights. The two countries have worked closely on implementation of the plan, drawing on strong engagement by stakeholders in both countries. Important progress has been made but much more work remains and the United States will continue to work closely with Colombia in this process.
In Jordan, our engagement produced an Implementation Plan Related to Working and Living Conditions of Workers that is helping to address concerns about workers’ rights and working conditions in Jordan’s garment sector, particularly with respect to foreign workers. Jordan has issued new standards for dormitory inspections, submitted new labor legislation to its parliament and hired new labor inspectors. The ILO has also been an important partner and has ramped up its engagement in Jordan to support labor protections for foreign workers.
Bangladesh, Swaziland, & Haiti illustrate how the Administration has been using the tools in U.S. preference programs to protect labor rights. Each of these countries is eligible for benefits under different programs—Bangladesh from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), Swaziland from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and Haiti from the Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) program. These programs, which encourage economic growth in developing countries through trade, all condition preferential market access on meeting certain “eligibility criteria,” which include criteria relating to labor rights. While the specific labor criteria in each program are unique, the Obama Administration has made use of all of them to address a range of serious problems: from lack of worker voice, to building and fire safety concerns, to acts of violence and intimidation towards union organizers, to employment-related sexual harassment. Addressing these issues is not only critical to protecting workers’ rights, it is necessary for strengthening developing countries’ growth strategies.
In Burma, we are developing new tools suited to the particular economic conditions in that country. We have announced a joint Initiative to Promote Fundamental Labor Rights and Practices in Myanmar, which aims to establish a partnership to advance labor rights and protections for workers in Burma. With recent changes in its posture towards the outside world, Burma is at an early and pivotal stage in its economic growth. The Initiative helps Burma lay the right foundation for ensuring that economic growth and development proceed on a basis that is inclusive and sustainable.
Finally, this report discusses the labor rights commitments that the United States is negotiating as part of the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with 11 Asia-Pacific countries and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) agreement with the 28 European Union member states. These agreements present an opportunity to lock in and build on the progress that we have made in ensuring that protection of labor rights is a core component of U.S. trade policy and helping to create new global norms for protecting workers’ rights in the context of trade.
To view the complete report, please click here.